Wednesday, April 29, 2015

welcome to japan

Nippon: the Floating Kingdom.
There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here.
But that was long ago. A hundred and twenty years.
Welcome to Japan.
With those words the curtain comes down on Pacific Overtures.  And it is true.  In part.

The island empire that was closed to foreigners for centuries now holds its arms open (half-way) to visitors.  Getting through Japanese quarantine, immigration, and customs was a stylized reminder that I will always be a gaijin (outsider) to this insular nation.

I try to avoid clich
és in my writing.  But Japan looks like a designer country.  Take a look at that bridge.  It could have come out of an Oscar de la Renta studio.  But it didn't stop there.

Today, on its surface, Japan is almost as western as Essex.  And that is not an accident.

When the Emperor Meiji overthrew the Shogun-dominated samurai society in 1867, he declared Japan would adopt western technology to become a world power.  And it did.  Including the arts.  The American bombing in World War Two helped Japan (unwillingly) in that process.

We visited Kobe and Kyoto today.  Even though they are both ancient cities, they are almost entirely modern -- with designer clothes stores, streets filled with cars, and that ever-present symbol of western civilization: McDonald's.

Kyoto was one of the ancient capitals of Japan.  First ruled by the emperor.  Then the shoguns.  With a reprise by the emperor -- Meiji, in this case, who moved the imperial capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.  (Please note the anagram.)

Today's trip was through the time tunnel.  Kyoto is a city of temples.  While American B-29s were leveling the rest of Japan in the Second World War, Kyoto was spared due to its cultural heritage.  And that heritage is proof that style is an ancient Japanese characteristic.

Part of that heritage is its temples.  We visited three of them.

The Golden Pavilion is one of those rare architectural anomalies that is both instructional and beautiful.  The building displays three separate functions and historical periods.

The first level was built as a pavilion for the emperor.  During the shogun era, the second level was added as a palace.  The last shogun of that era decided to become a Buddhist monk.  He added a third level and turned the pavilion into a temple.

What we see now is a restoration.  American bombers may have spared it.  But the ravages of time, earthquakes, and fire did not.  The building is a reconstruction,  What looks like yellow paint is actually gold leaf.

Our next stop was the Heian shrine -- a Shinto compound.

Shinto is the ancestral religion of Japan.  It is simultaneously monotheistic and pantheistic -- recognizing numerous natural phenomenon as having souls that can be persuaded to change their course.  The wind.  The sun.  Donald Trump.

Buddhism came to Japan from China around 552 AD, at a time when Shintoism was in a moral slump, and survived concurrently with the ancient sect.  To this  day.  Both disciplines have now merged into the lives of the Japanese as a single faith.

Shinto is relied upon for births, weddings, and festivals.  The joyous occasions of this life.  Buddhism comes into play for funerals and matters of the afterlife.

It sounds a bit as if that came out of Atheism for Dummies.  But that was our guide's take on contemporary religious thought in Japan.

Our last stop was a Buddhist temple (Kiyomizu-dera) perched on a hill above modern Kyoto.

Japan may have been modernizing for a century and a half, but its people honor the old ways, as well.  When young Japanese visit Kyoto, they often rent ancient fancy dress. 

Imagine visiting Plymouth Rock and donning a pilgrim outfit.  Or getting all duded up for a rodeo.  And you will get something like this in Kyoto.

And they really get into their roles.  With modernity swirling about them, they shuffle along as if they are living in the 15th century and are on their way to offer up a prayer in the great hall.

But style was not limited to bridges, temples, and kimonos.  The shop windows were filled stylish dresses.

Even the tea shop windows with its cake and candy displayed simple and elegant style.

We may have been seen as foreign barbarians, but it is nice to feel welcome to Japan.

Of course, none of that explains how a country steeped in style could produce something as kitschy as Hello Kitty.

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